“Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answer.” Robert Half
You’ve probably been in a situation where you’ve needed customer service but the agent couldn’t understand the problem. Or worse, maybe the agent tried to solve an issue that wasn’t actually your problem.
Misunderstandings like this are all too common in the customer support world, but there’s a simple way to prevent them: teaching customer service agents to ask the right questions.
Learning to ask probing questions is a key skill for customer service agents to master. This guide will show you why they matter—and, more importantly, how to ask them.
What is a probing question?
A probing question is a type of question that is used for investigating and gathering information. The answers to probing questions give you a deeper understanding of a customer’s problem.
Probing questions are the equivalent of Sherlock Holmes pulling out his magnifying glass to look at a clue more closely.
Probing questions are similar to clarifying questions, but not quite the same. A probing question is about gathering facts and details, whereas a clarifying question is about trying to achieve mutual understanding.
You can think about probing questions as the “what, where, when, why and how” questions. The answers you receive will help you construct a map of the problem so that you can find the best pathway to your customer’s solution.
On the other hand, when you ask a clarifying question, you’re typically repeating or reframing what the customer has told you. Clarifying questions confirm your understanding and give your customer space to share additional relevant details that they may have forgotten. A clarifying question can be a great follow-up to a probing question.
Both are important parts of excellent communication and should be part of every customer service agent’s toolbox.
Can you tell me when you first began to notice this issue?
So if I understand you correctly, the problem has been impacting you by preventing XYZ and as a result you’ve been dealing with ABC. Did I get that right or am I missing something?
You may have glimpsed this above, but it’s worth pointing out that there's a strong relationship between listening and asking questions. Listening carefully to your customers' needs—spoken or implied—is a critical step in understanding whether you need to ask more probing questions or if you need to clarify your own understanding.
How to ask probing questions for better customer service
Before we get into specific examples of probing questions, it’s important to note something: How you ask a question really matters.
The way that you ask your questions impacts how your customers hear them. Even if you have the best intentions when asking a question, if you ask in a way that they view as unempathetic or uncaring, they may respond poorly. Imagine you’re a customer who was given a sweater as a gift, only it had a hole in it:
- Empathetic: “I’m so sorry to hear that your gift wasn’t perfect. That must have been disappointing. Don’t worry though, I’ll get you sorted out with a new one ASAP. First, can you describe the issue with the sweater more for me? How big is the hole? Where is it located?”
- Unempathetic: “That stinks. Something must have gone wrong in production. How big was the hole?”
On the flip side, if you ask your questions in a way that shows you’re genuinely interested in helping them, your customers will usually feel heard and will gladly supply the information you need.
Every question you ask should have a purpose. And it’s totally okay to let your customers know why you’re asking a question. You can even say something like this:
I want to make sure that I fully understand this issue so I can help you. I’m going to ask several questions to get a full understanding of your issue, that way I’ll make sure I can solve it as quickly as possible.
Empathetic probing questions
Customers can be frustrated when they contact support, so you should know how to empathize with the emotions they’re feeling. Depending on the situation, you might need to begin by acknowledging the difficult emotions they are experiencing.
Examples of empathetic probing questions:
Can you tell me a little more about how this experience impacted you?
This question is great because it opens the door for the customer to share information about why their problem needs to be solved. It gives the customer room to vent a little, while also helping you understand what they were trying to achieve. Knowing their end goal helps you understand if there’s an alternative way to solve their problem.
If you were to go back in time, what is the experience you wish that you would have had?
Be careful with this question. While it can be helpful, it can also trigger additional frustration if asked at the wrong time. It’s important to demonstrate reflective listening and empathy to your customer’s situation early on so that when you ask this question, it gives your customer the opportunity to take part in the solution. If you get your timing right, this question can help you to understand what the customer’s expectation was and where you can improve your product or user experience.
Is there anything else about this that you would like to add?
This question allows the customer to add any details that they might have missed. It also demonstrates that you’re listening and want to understand the full spectrum of their situation.
Investigative probing questions
When dealing with technical issues, investigative probing questions will help you to map out the customer’s problem and find the correct answers.
Examples of investigative probing questions
As a support agent, you’ve got a unique glimpse into the policies, functions, and mechanics of the products or services your company provides. Just like a flowchart, answers to investigative probing questions work to diagnose problems and take you to the root of your customer’s reason for reaching out.
When did this issue first begin?
This question will put you on the right track to understand the timeline of the customer’s problem. This can sometimes pinpoint the source of the problem—like a bug with your most recent software release—and can help determine the breadth, scope, and impact of the issue.
Can you give me a specific example of when this issue is occurring?
If you can reproduce the customer’s problem, you’ll better understand if the customer is using the product incorrectly, if this is a product limitation, or if it’s a technical bug that needs fixing.
Have you found any workaround solutions in the meantime?
This probing question can give you insight into whether your customer has been able to keep using your product despite the issue. If they aren’t able to use your product at all, that often increases the severity of the issue because they might churn if you can’t quickly fix it.
Can you walk me through the steps to recreate the issue?
Perhaps your understanding of the problem is limited by your understanding of your product. This can happen from time to time, and this question is an opportunity to improve your understanding of how customers actually use your product.
Once you have a clear understanding of your customer’s problem, it’s time to try and solve it. Don’t skip directly to solution-oriented questions—while customers might appreciate you solving their issue quickly, you’ll run the risk of misunderstanding what they’re after.
Examples of solution-oriented probing questions
If I was able to provide you with XYZ would that resolve this for you?
This question is excellent for finding a collaborative solution with your customer. Depending on how they answer, you might learn more about what they need or what remains unresolved for them.
Would you prefer solution A or solution B?
This type of question is known as an “option-close.” It asks the customer to select their preferred option and helps them to feel empowered about the outcome. If your customer is not satisfied with either of these choices, you might need to ask more probing questions to determine the root of their problem.
How soon do you need this issue resolved?
Some issues take time to solve. Asking this question can help you know how urgent your customer thinks the problem is. Setting clear expectations is a key component of keeping customers satisfied, and this question uncovers the ideal timeline in their mind.
If I can provide you with XYZ temporary solution until we can address ABC as a longer-term solution, would that help?
Sometimes you can’t immediately meet your customer’s needs. In those cases, a question like this one helps you understand their satisfaction with a short-term fix so you can understand the severity of the issue in their minds.
Solve the right problem, every time
Customers want to know that you care about their experience. The way that you listen, ask questions, and provide solutions is how you reassure your customers that they’ve come to the right place. Probing questions are an essential part of your customer service toolbox.
When you ask good probing questions, you delve deep into the customer’s situation to understand how you can best help them. Clearly understanding your customers and providing excellent support when they encounter issues is a foundational piece of building customer loyalty.
If you’re a growing company struggling to keep up with your customers’ support needs, Peak Support can help you build an outsourced team of customer service experts. Contact us for more info today!